Quacks And Quackery
Sources: Primitive Psycho-therapy And Quackery
Quackery and the love of being quacked, are in human nature as
weeds are in our fields.
DR. J. BROWN, Spare Hours.
They are Quack-salvers, Fellowes that live by senting oyles
BEN JONSON, Volpone, Act II, Scene 2.
These, like quacks in Medicine, excite the malady to profit by
cure, and retard the cure to augment the fees.
Here also they have, every night in summer, a world of
Montebanks, Ciarlatani, and such stuff, who together with
their remedies, strive to please the People with their little
Comedies, Popet-plays and songs.
R. LASSELS, Voy. Ital.: 1698.
Le monde n'a jamais manque de charlatans; cette science, de
tout temps, fut en professeurs tres fertile.
He took himself to be no mean Doctour, who being guilty of no
Greek, and being demanded why it was called an hectic fever;
'because,' saith he, 'of an hecking cough, which ever
attendeth that disease.'
THOMAS FULLER, The Holy State.
Man is a dupable animal. Quacks in Medicine, quacks in
Religion, and quacks in Politics know this and act upon that
knowledge. There is scarcely anyone who may not, like a trout,
be taken by tickling.
Quack doctors are indeed pompous, self-sufficient, affectedly
solemn, venal and unfeeling with a vengeance.
VICESIMUS KNOX, D.D.
If Satan has ever succeeded in compressing a greater amount
of concentrated mendacity into one set of human bodies, above
every other description, it is in the advertising quacks.
Pacific Medical and Surgical Journal.
The bold and unblushing assertion of the empiric, of a
never-failing remedy, constantly reiterated, inspires
confidence in the invalid, and not unfrequently tends by its
operation on the mind, to assist in the eradication of
THOS. J. PETTIGREW, F.R.S.
The word quack, meaning a charlatan, is an abbreviation of
quack-salver. To quack is to utter a harsh, croaking sound, like a
duck; and hence secondarily, to talk noisily and to make vain and loud
pretensions. And a salver is one who undertakes to perform cures
by the application of ointments or cerates. Hence the term quack-salver
was commonly used in the seventeenth century, signifying an ignorant
person, who was wont to extol the curative virtues of his salves. Now we
see, said Francis Bacon, in "The Advancement of Learning," the
weakness and credulity of men. For they will often prefer a mountebank
or witch before a learned physician. And therefore the poets were
clear-sighted in discerning this extreme folly, when they made
Esculapius and Circe brother and sister. For in all times, in the
opinion of the multitude, witches, old women and impostors have had a
competition with physicians.
According to one authority, the term quack is derived from an ancient
Saxon word, signifying small, slender and trifling, and hence was
applied to shallow and frivolous itinerant peddlers, who foisted upon a
credulous community such wares as penny-plasters, balsam of liquorice
for coughs, snuffs for headaches, and infallible eye-lotions.
It has also been maintained that quack is a corruption of quake, and
that quack-doctors were so called because, in marshy districts, patients
affected with intermittent fever, sometimes vulgarly known as the
quakes, were wont to be treated by ignorant persons, who professed to
charm away the disease, and hence were styled quake-doctors.
In William Harrison's "Description of the Island of Britain," occurs the
following curious passage: "Now we have many chimneys, and yet our
tenderlings complain of reumes, catarres and poses; then had we none but
reredores, and our heads did never ake. For, as the smoke in those days
was supposed to be a sufficient hardening for the timber of the house,
so it was reputed a far better medicine to keep the good man and his
family from the quacke or pose, wherewith as then very few were
acquainted." A writer in "Notes and Queries," remarked that the
word quacke, in the foregoing extract, probably signified a disease
rather than a charlatan, and possibly the mysterious affection known as
"the poofs," from which good Queen Bess suffered one cold winter. This
quacke appears to have been a novelty and therefore fashionable,
affected by the tenderlings of that era, "as the proper thing to have."
The quack-doctor, continues the writer above mentioned, must have been a
fashionable style of man, not meddling much with the poor, and familiar
with boudoirs, curing the new disease with new and wondrous remedies.
May not the word quacke, asks Stylites, another enquirer, as above
used, mean quake or ague? For an ague-doctor must have had much
employment, and if successful, great renown, in those days of fens,
marshes and undrained ground.
In an anniversary discourse delivered before the New York Academy of
Medicine, November 7, 1855, Dr. John Watson remarked that the numbers
and pretensions of the illegitimate sons of Esculapius were as great in
ancient as in modern times. And they were quite as wont to receive the
patronage of the upper classes. The Emperor Nero thus favored the shrewd
Lydian practitioner, Thessalus, who maintained that all learning was
And if we may believe the statements of Pliny and Galen, the Roman
quacks equalled, if they did not exceed, in ignorance and arrogance,
the vast horde of handicraftsmen, bone-setters, herniotomists,
lithotomists, abortionists, and poison-venders, who overran Southern
Europe throughout the Middle Ages.
The inhabitants of ancient Chaldea, in common with many primitive
peoples of later times, cherished the belief that all diseases were
caused by demons. Medicine was merely a branch of Magic, and the chief
healing agents were exorcisms, incantations, and enchanted beverages.
There were, properly speaking, no physicians. Sometimes, wrote Francois
Lenormant, in "Chaldean Magic," disease was regarded as an effect of the
wickedness of different demons, and sometimes it appears to have been
considered as the work of a distinct malevolent being, who exercised his
power upon man.
According to the old Shamanic belief, which was the primeval religion of
all mankind, every physical ailment is caused by a little devil which
enters the body and can be expelled therefrom only by means of magic.
Abundant traces of this doctrine, says Charles Godfrey Leland in "Gipsy
Sorcery," appear in our highest civilization and religion among people
who gravely attribute every evil to the Devil, instead of to the
unavoidable antagonisms of nature. "If," continues this writer, "a pen
drops from our fingers, or a penny rolls from our grasp, the former, of
course, falls on our new white dress, while the latter, nine times out
of ten, goes directly to the nearest grating, crack or rat-hole."
In the religion of the ancient Copts, the Devil was believed to have
inherited from his ancestors all the power attributed by ignorance and
superstition to certain superior beings. He it was who originated all
diseases, and by a singular contradiction, he likewise cured them,
either directly or through the agency of the magicians and quacks who
followed in his train.
According to a widespread doctrine of antiquity, innumerable demons were
ever active in endeavoring to inflict diseases upon the bodies of human
No medical practitioner, however skilful, could successfully cope with
these supernatural beings. Their evil designs could be checked only by
experts in occult science. It has been said that whoever humors the
credulity of man, is sure to prosper. The modern quack exemplifies this.
"The Devil, the Christian successor of the ancient evil spirit, has
exerted a great influence on the medical views of all classes of people.
He and his successors were considered 'the disturbers of the peace' in
the health of humanity. The Devil was able to influence each individual
organ in a manner most disagreeable to the owner of the same."
Although the hideous portrayals of the Evil One, with horns, hoofs,
pitchfork, and tail, appealed strongly to the imagination, they were
wholly fanciful. If Satan were to appear in human form, as for example
in the guise of a charlatan (says William Ramsey in "The Depths of
Satan," 1889), we might expect him to assume the appearance, dress and
demeanor of a gentleman.
Indeed, although the idea of the embodiment of evil is naturally
repellent, a study of the Devil's personality, as represented in
theology, romance, and popular tradition, reveals much that is
interesting. In the role of a medical pretender, however, he deserves no
more sympathy than any other quack.
In England, says William George Black, in "Folk-Medicine," the Devil has
long represented much of the paganism still existing, and seems to have
been regarded almost as the head of the medical profession. He has
enjoyed the reputation of being able to inflict and cure diseases, not
only those of his own production, but also natural diseases, since he
knows their origin and causes better than physicians can. For, wrote the
learned Dutch practitioner and demonologist, Johann Wier (1515-1588),
physicians being younger than the Devil, must necessarily have had less
James Grant, in the "Mysteries of All Nations" (page 1), remarks that
the doctrine of devils is of great antiquity, probably dating from the
The immediate descendants of Adam and Eve must have learned from them,
or by tradition, the circumstances connected with the temptation, fall,
and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Therefore it seems highly
probable that the serpent was regarded, at a very early period, as
something more than an ordinary earthly reptile.
In the Dark Ages popular opinion credited the Devil with a vast amount
of erudition; and he was, moreover, reputed to be well versed in medical
science and magical arts. Whenever a man of genius had accomplished some
task which appeared to be above the powers of the human mind, it was
commonly believed that the Devil either had performed the work or had at
least rendered some assistance.
Burton quotes from the German philosopher, Nicholas Taurellus (born
1547), as follows: "Many doubt whether the Devil can cure such diseases
as he hath not made; and some flatly deny it. Howsoever, common
experience confirms to our astonishment that magic can work such facts,
and that the Devil without impediment can penetrate through all the
parts of our bodies, and cure such maladies by means to us unknown."
Again, says Burton, many famous cures are daily performed, affording
evidence that the Devil is an expert physician; and God oftentimes
permits witches and magicians to produce these effects. Paracelsus
encouraged his patients to cultivate a strong imagination, whereby they
should experience beneficial results. . . . Therein lies the secret in a
nutshell. If a man has confidence in the treatment prescribed by a
charlatan, he may be benefited thereby. The Devil is a charlatan.
Therefore, if God permit, even diabolical remedies may be efficacious,
if the patient's faith in them is strong enough. It is not so much the
quality as the strength of the faith, says Dr. McComb in "Religion and
Medicine," that is of vital moment, so far as the removal of a given
disorder is concerned.
The Christians of the early centuries accepted the pagan doctrine of
demonology without modification. The belief in demoniac possession and
the belief in witches were later developments from this same doctrine.
In the third century originated a new order of ecclesiastics, whose
members were known as exorcists. The expulsion of evil spirits was their
special function. But in addition to the official exorcists, many
sorcerers and magicians assumed to cure the possessed, as well as those
suffering from other diseases. The idea of good and evil demons assumed
in the Middle Ages a specifically Christian character, which resembled
the ancient Babylonian doctrine except that the good demons were
replaced by angels and saints, whereas the evil spirits were embodied in
the Devil. Both saints and devils were thenceforth destined to play
their part in the domain of medicine.
Martin Luther, as is well known, was a firm believer in the doctrine
which held that the Devil was the originator of all diseases. No
ailment, maintained the great reformer, comes from God, who is good, and
does good to every one. It is the Devil who causes and performs all
mischief, who interferes with all play and all arts, and who brings
about pestilences and fevers. Luther believed that he himself was
compelled, when his physical condition was out of order, to have a
scuffle with the Evil One, and thereby obtain the mastery over
Tatian, the Syrian writer, of the second century, declared that the
profligacy of demons had made use of the productions of nature for evil
purposes. The demons, he wrote, do not cure, but by their art make men
In that age, everybody, of whatever class or station in life, believed
in the existence of demons, who were thought to be omnipresent,
infesting men and the lower animals, as well as trees and rivers. At the
time of the Reformation the same belief prevailed and was an important
factor in influencing men's actions.
A belief in the personality of the Evil One is amply warranted by
Scripture. What is not warranted, says a writer in "Social
England," by anything in Holy Writ, is the medieval conception of
Satan, ruling over a kingdom of darkness, in rivalry with God.
Ignorance is guided by terror, rather than by love. To the
undisciplined mind, whatever is supernatural or unexpected, makes a
stronger appeal than the familiar phenomena of daily life. We cannot
understand the motives and acts of our forefathers, wrote Henry C. Lea,
in a "History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages," unless we take
into consideration the mental condition engendered by the consciousness
of a daily and hourly personal contact with Satan.
Charlatans were not unknown in the fifth century B. C. For the great
Hippocrates inveighed against those who relied on amulets and charms as
curative agents. In his view, the physician should possess a mind of
such serenity and dignity as to be superior to superstition, for the
latter is incompatible with a knowledge of the truth.
The Romans of old, who drove nails into the walls of the Temple of
Jupiter, in the hope of warding off the Plague, employed thereby a quack
Indeed, for more than six hundred years, they had no physicians, but
employed theurgic methods of treatment by means of prayers, charms, and
prescriptions from the ancient Sibylline Books, which were reputed to
date from the reign of Tarquin the Proud, in the sixth century B. C.
These volumes were kept in a stone chest, under ground, in the Temple of
Jupiter Capitolinus at Rome. The ancient Romans possessed only the rude
surgery and domestic medicine of the barbarians, until the importation
of scientific methods from Greece. Cato the Censor (B. C. 234-149)
disliked physicians, partly because they were mostly Greeks, and partly
because he himself, although venerated as a model of Roman virtue, was
an outrageous quack, who thought himself equal to a whole college of
From a very early time, and for many centuries, medical pretenders and
empirics were known as "magicians." Practitioners of this class throve
exceedingly during the reigns of several Roman emperors. They strove to
work upon the imaginations of the people by sensational curative
methods. Inasmuch, wrote Dr. Hugo Magnus, as whatever is curious and
unusual, has always possessed a special fascination for humanity, the
incredible remedies of the magicians found everywhere hosts of
believers. And as the most nonsensical theories, if well tinged with the
miraculous, find eager credence, there developed a rude form of
psycho-therapy. For by the employment of extraordinary and even
loathsome substances, many of which had no value as material remedies,
they sought to impress curative ideas upon the minds of their patients,
and doubtless very often with success. Inventive genius must have been
sorely taxed among the magicians, in their endeavors to originate
sensational prescriptions. The voluminous works of Alexander of
Tralles, Quintus Serenus Samonicus, Marcellus Empiricus, and of many
others, show how close was the union between medicine and magic. An
enumeration of uncouth remedies formerly in vogue would fill huge
pharmacopoeias, and belongs to the domain of Folk-Medicine. Let one or
two examples suffice here.
For the removal of those hardened portions of the epidermis, usually
occurring upon the feet, and vulgarly known as corns, Pliny the Elder,
in his "Natural History," recommends the sufferer, after observing the
flight of a meteor, to pour a little vinegar upon the hinge of a door.
And Sextus Placitus Papyriensis, a nonsensical medical writer of the
fourth century, advises, for the cure of glaucoma, that the affected eye
be rubbed with the corresponding organ of a wolf.
Dr. Theodor Puschmann, in his "History of Medical Education," quotes an
old writer who inveighed against those practitioners who were
wont to fill the ears of their patients with stories of their own
professional skill, while depreciating the services of others of the
fraternity. Such unscrupulous quacks sought also to win over the
patient's friends by little attentions, flatteries and innuendoes. Many,
said this philosopher, recoil from a man of skill even, if he is a
braggart. "When the doctor," he continues, "attended by a man known to
the patient, and having a right of entry into the house, advances into
the dwelling of the sick man, he should make his appearance in good
clothes, with an inclination of the head; he should be thoughtful and of
good bearing, and observe all possible respect. So soon as he is within,
word, thought and attention should be given to nothing else but the
examination of the patient, and whatever else appertains to the case."
In England, during the earliest times, the administration of medicines
was always attended with religious ceremonial, such as the repetition of
a psalm. These observances however were often tinctured with a good deal
of heathenism, the traditional folk-lore of the country, in the form of
charms, magic and starcraft. It is evident, wrote the author of "Social
England," from the cases preserved by monkish chronicles, that
the element of hysteria was prominent in the maladies of the Middle
Ages, and that these affections were therefore peculiarly susceptible to
psychic treatment. The Angles and Saxons brought with them to England a
belief in medicinal runes and healing spells, and the cures wrought by
their medical men were attributed to the magic potency of the charms
employed. Some interesting information on contemporary manners is
contained in a "Book of Counsels to Young Practitioners" (A. D. 1300).
The use of polysyllabic and unintelligible words is therein
recommended, probably as a goad to the patient's imagination.
Medical charms, wrote a shrewd philosopher of old, are not to be used
because they can effect any change, but because they bring the patient
into a better frame of mind.
An interesting account of the manners and methods of itinerant
charlatans of the period is found in "English Wayfaring Life in the
Middle Ages" (fourteenth century), by the noted writer and diplomat, M.
Jean Jules Jusserand. These Bohemian mountebanks went about the world,
selling health. They selected the village green or market-place as
headquarters, and spreading a carpet or piece of cloth on the ground,
proceeded to harangue the populace. Big words, marvellous tales, praise
of their own distinguished ancestry, enumeration of the wonderful cures
wrought by themselves, statements of their purely altruistic motives and
benevolent designs, and of their contempt for filthy lucre, these were
characteristic features of their discourses, which preceded the
exhibition and sale of infallible nostrums.
The law, wrote M. Jusserand, distinguished very clearly between an
educated physician and a cheap-jack of the cross-ways. The court-doctor,
for example, had the support of an established reputation. He had
studied at one of the universities, and he offered the warranty of his
high position. The wandering herbalist was less advantageously known. In
the country, indeed, he was usually able to escape the rigor of the
laws, but in the cities and larger towns he could not ply his trade with
impunity. The joyous festivals of Old England attracted many of these
hawkers of pills and elixirs, for on such occasions they met the rustic
laborers, whose simplicity rendered them an easy prey. These
peasant-folk pressed around, open-mouthed, uncertain whether they ought
to laugh or to be afraid. But they finished usually by buying specimens
of the eloquently vaunted cure-alls.
In medieval times, we are told, it was difficult to distinguish quacks
from skilled practitioners, because the latter were inclined to be
superstitious. In the year 1220 the University of Paris, with the
sanction of the Church and municipality, issued a statute against
unlicensed practitioners, and in 1271 another, whereby Jews and Jewesses
were forbidden "to practice medicine or surgery on any Catholic
Christian." All so-called chirurgeons and apothecaries, as well as
herbalists, of either sex, were enjoined from visiting patients,
performing operations, or prescribing any medicines except certain
confections in common use, unless in the presence and under the
direction of a physician, the penalties being excommunication,
imprisonment, and fine.
Never before, says Roswell Park, M.D., in "An Epitome of the History of
Medicine," were there so many sorcerers, astrologers and alchemists, as
existed at the close of the Dark Ages. These were mostly restless
adventurers, of a class common at all periods of history, who chafed
under the yoke of authority. Such individuals, in enlisting in the army
of charlatans, were not usually actuated by philanthropic motives.
Whatever benevolent sentiments they may have entertained, were in behalf
of themselves. Many of them lived apart, as recluses, and were, in
modern parlance, cranks, who lacked mental poise. Yet they were usually
shrewd, and more or less adepts in occult science.
The power of auto-suggestion was evident in the cures of medieval
ailments wrought by the methods of faith-healing. Prayer and
intercession were the chief means employed, but these were often
supplemented by the use of concoctions of medicinal herbs from the
The resources of therapeutics were, moreover, derived from a strange
mixture of magic, astrology, and alchemy. A contemporary manual of
"Hints to Physicians" advised the doctor, when called to visit a
patient, to recommend himself to God, and to the Archangel Raphael.
Then, after having refreshed himself with a drink, he was to praise the
beauty of the country and the liberality of the family. He was also
cautioned to avoid expressing a hasty opinion of the case, because the
patient's friends would attach the more value to the physician's
judgment, if they were obliged to wait for it.
Paracelsus devoted much attention to chemistry as a science distinct
from alchemy. Indeed he may be regarded as the founder of medical
chemistry. He extolled the merits of certain medicines now
recognized as among the most valuable in the modern pharmacopoeia.
Chief among these was the tincture of opium, to which he gave its
present name of laudanum, a contraction of laudandum, something to be
The eccentric German alchemist and philosopher, Henry Cornelius Agrippa
(1486-1535), described a prosperous charlatan of his day as "clad in
brave apparel, and having on his fingers showy rings, glittering with
precious stones; a fellow who had gotten fame on account of his travels
in far countries, and by reason of his obstinate manner of vaunting with
stiff lies the merits of his nostrums. Such an one had continually in
his mouth many barbarous and uncouth words."
Towards the close of the sixteenth century, France was invaded by a
horde of mountebanks in showy and fantastic garb, who went from one town
to another, loudly and with brazen effrontery proclaiming in the
market-places their ability to cure every kind of ailment. And the
people, then as now easily duped, lent willing ears to these wily
pretenders, and bought freely of their marvellous pills and
The prevalence of quackery in England is shown by a preamble to a
statute of Henry VIII, as follows: "Forasmuch as the science and cunning
of Physic and Surgery are daily, within this Realm, exercised by a great
number of ignorant persons, of whom the greater part have no insight in
the same, nor in any other kind of learning. Some also ken no letters on
the book; so far forth that common artificers, as smiths, weavers and
women, boldly and accustomably take upon them great cures, in which they
partly use scorcery and witchcraft, and partly apply such remedies to
the disease as being very noxious and nothing meet; to the high
displeasure of God, great infamy to the Faculty, and the grievous damage
and destruction of divers of the King's people, most especially of them
that cannot discern the cunning from the uncunning."
Probably Dr. Gilbert Skeene, of Aberdeen, Scotland, had in mind such
pretenders, when he wrote, in a treatise on the Plague, published in
1568, that "Medicineirs are mair studious of their ain helthe nor
of the common weilthe."
A statute of the thirty-fourth year of Henry VIII (1543) contains the
statement that although the majority of the members of the craft of
chirurgeons had small cunning, yet they would accept large sums of
money, and do little therefor; by reason whereof their patients suffered
At about this period, many were the marvellous remedies which were
advertised, and keen was the rivalry among empirics, in their efforts to
outdo their brethren in the selection of high-sounding names for their
vaunted panaceas. Among the latter were to be found such choice nostrums
as rectifiers of the vitals, which were warranted to supply the places
of all other medicines whatsoever.
Other pleasing remedies rejoiced in the names of vivifying drops,
cephalic tinctures, gripe-waters, and angelical specifics.
"The Anatomyes of the True Physition and Counterfeit Mounte-banke"
(imprinted at London, 1605) contains an enumeration of some of the
classes of people wherefrom recruits were drawn to swell the ranks of
charlatans in England some three centuries ago. Such were:
Runagate Jews, the cut-throats and robbers of Christians,
slow-bellied monks, who have made escape from their cloisters,
simoniacal and perjured shavelings, busy Sir John lack-Latins,
thrasonical and unlettered chemists, shifting and outcast
pettifoggers, light-headed and trivial druggers and
apothecaries, sun-shunning night-birds and corner-creepers,
dull-pated and base mechanics, stage-players, jugglers,
peddlers, prittle-prattling barbers, filthy graziers, curious
bath-keepers, common shifters and cogging cavaliers, bragging
soldiers, lazy clowns, one-eyed or lamed fencers, toothless
and tattling old wives, chattering char-women and
nurse-keepers, long-tongued midwives, 'scape-Tyburns,
dog-leeches, and such-like baggage. In the next rank, to
second this goodly troupe, follow poisoners, enchanters,
wizards, fortune-tellers, magicians, witches and hags. Now, if
you take a good view of these sweet companions, you shall find
them, not only dolts, idiots and buzzards; but likewise
contemners and haters of all good learning.
For the greater part of them disdain book-learning, and never
came where learning grew. . . . They are such as cannot abide
to take any pains or travel in study. They reject incomparable
Galen's learned Commentaries, as tedious and frivolous
discourses, having found through Paracelsus's Vulcanian shop,
a more short way to the Wood. . . . Others are so notoriously
sottish, that being over head and ears in the myrie puddle of
gross ignorance, yet they will by no means see or acknowledge
For to give an instance in the most absolute, exquisite and
divine frame of man's body, if they can shew a rude
description thereof, hanging in their chamber, and nickname
two or three parts, (so as it would make a horse to break his
halter to hear them) they think themselves jolly fellows, and
are esteemed great anatomists in the eyes of the Vulgar. . . .
Now it is the honestest and safest course for good and learned
physicians, to have no society with these barbarians, enemies
to all antiquity, humanity and good learning, lest they hear
the old saying, like will to like. As was said of the Devil
dancing with the collier.
We may glean some information about the methods of the practising quacks
of the seventeenth century, from the following announcement, which is to
be found in Cotgrave's "Treasury of Wit and Language" (1665):
"My name is Pulsefeel, a poor Doctor of Physick,
That does wear three-pile velvet in his hat,
Has paid a quarter's rent of his house beforehand,
And (simple as he stands here) was made doctor beyond sea.
I vow, as I am right worshipful, the taking
Of my degree cost me twelve French crowns, and
Thirty-five pounds of butter in Upper Germany.
I can make your beauty and preserve it,
Rectifie your bodie and maintaine it,
Clarifie your blood, surfle your cheeks, perfume
Your skin, tinct your hair, enliven your eye,
Heighten your appetite; and as for Jellies,
Dentifrizes, Dyets, Minerals, Fricasses,
Pomatums, Fumes, Italia masks to sleep in,
Either to moisten or dry the superficies, Faugh! Galen
Was a goose and Paracelsus a Patch, to Doctor Pulsefeel."